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Q&A WITH BILL SPANGLER

Posted 4.3.12 

In my estimation, Bill Spangler heads the brief list of Writers Whose Robotech Comics Are Worth A Damn. And that description of his work is very much an understatement. Starting with his first Robotech title, Bill brought a newfound creativity to the mythos that also respected the contributions of others, namely those of novelist Jack McKinney. Bill gave Robotech characters a grounded reality and a clear sense of purpose. In addition, he made it look easy.

Then again, he seems to possess a natural knack for writing purposeful characters. He’s enjoyed pulp stories—a genre filled with characters striving toward clear goals—since at least the early times of Tom Corbett, Space Cadet, a property that he considers pulplike. How early? Well, Tom Corbett predates Star Trek, sharing some similarities to it. (Let’s just say a trinity of main characters in sci-fi isn’t exclusive to Trek.) Eventually Bill even wrote Tom Corbett comics. Twice—one time for publisher Malibu and the other for Bluewater. His writing career spans much more than that, though. He brought his pulp sensibilities to original comics creations such as Bloodwing (Malibu) before he wrote Tom Corbett, followed by The Argonauts (Malibu again). In 2010, his prose story “Mutual Assured Destruction” was included in The Green Hornet Chronicles, an anthology from Moonstone. Also accessible to the masses, Bill’s Lance Star, Sky Ranger novella “Talons of the Red Condors” is available from Airship 27; it can be attained via iPulpFiction.com in a way that is the electronic equivalent of picking up a dime-store offering from days of yore.  

So, you could say Bill is full of pulpy goodness. Fortunately he had managed to share this quality on Robotech titles for several years. Nevertheless, I find it curious in the following Q&A that the first Robotech comic I ask him about—The Malcontent Uprisings, which has plenty of purposeful characters—actually seems the least pulplike of all his Robotech work.

Bryant Shiu aka Mecha 8

                        _________________

How did you get your start in comics?

BILL: I got in over the transom, believe it or not. Back in the late 1980s, when the direct sales market was starting to take off, Malibu Graphics ran an ad in Comic Buyers’ Guide saying that the editors there would look at proposals for new series. I sent them a proposal for a character called Bloodwing, who was a super hero with heavy science fiction overtones. (I liked to tell people it was The Shadow meets Blade Runner.) I honestly didn’t believe I could sell it, but I thought it might be enough to open a conversation with Malibu and that it would lead me to selling something else. Fortunately, though, the folks at Malibu did like Bloodwing.

And, yeah, I do know how lucky I was. I don’t think something like that could happen today.

What led to you working for Eternity/Malibu, the Robotech comics publisher at the time you wrote your first Robotech comic book, The Malcontent Uprisings?

BILL: Eternity/Malibu was the first company I worked for. I had sold two series to them, Bloodwing and The Argonauts, when they announced they would be doing The Sentinels comic. I was a relative newbie, as far as anime was concerned. But I knew and liked ROBOTECH, so I called the Malibu offices to see if they had chosen a creative team. They had, but Chris Ulm, the editor, asked me if I wanted to develop something around the Malcontent Uprisings period.

Because I was a relative newbie, Harmony Gold asked for a detailed outline and some fully scripted pages, but the proposal was approved without any changes.



What appealed to you about this portion of the Robotech saga? What are the things that stood out for you about this period that you wanted to write about it?

BILL: I thought the period of the Malcontent Uprisings had (and still has) a lot of dramatic potential. You have two different cultures with very different philosophies and standards trying to share one planet. And the war between humanity and the Zentraedi may be officially over, but the feelings the war produced can’t be turned off instantly. So there’s a lot of bitterness and resentment, on both sides.

Many of the same circumstances hold true for ALIEN NATION—which is probably one reason why it appealed to me, and why I lobbied to do some ALIEN NATION comics.

Among the characters featured in The Malcontent Uprisings, Max and Miriya are given center stage, and to a high degree, Jonathan Wolff (who gets continued mileage in Invid War). You developed all three characters significantly and showed different sides to them. What are the things that you found which provided the grist for making them central to the story?

BILL: I started off with the idea of wanting to focus on secondary characters because I thought there was a better chance of telling a significant story about them, a story that dealt with more than whatever physical jeopardy they were in. And I wanted to have characters from different generations of ROBOTECH interacting.

Max and Miriya were obvious choices because they were in a sort of limbo between the human and the Zentraedi world. And I like to write about Wolff because his story goes from one extreme to the other. He starts out as a great hero and winds up as a traitor to humanity (although I think of him as more flawed than evil).

The comic was especially gritty at times; Max uses a rock to bash a captor’s head in, and Miriya blasts a former comrade-in-arms (among one of two heart-wrenching casualties in the same scene) at close range. Were there any surprises as you wrote the series? Did certain moments or characters surprise you in the process? Perhaps beyond what I’ve mentioned, what were those instances?

BILL: I honestly don’t remember any big surprises during the writing of Malcontent Uprisings. I knew I wanted to have Max confront the ugliest aspects of war, but I don’t know if I had a specific incident in mind before I wrote issue one. For what it’s worth, I wasn’t consciously trying to make ROBOTECH grittier. I just wanted to push Max beyond his comfort zone. (Some people may call this the same thing, but I don’t.)

A small surprise I encountered while writing “Malcontents” was at the very end, when I realized that Max could show his empathy and support of Miriya with a small gesture, rather than a big, dramatic one.

Tell us about the process of writing part of the Zentraedi language for the comic. Did you coin phrases that simply sounded Zentraedi to your ear, or was there more to it than that? How did the direction of the story influence which Zentraedi words you developed?

BILL: I guess I started with the thought that there were going to be scenes where the Zentraedi characters wouldn’t be speaking English, and what was I going to do with them? I guess I could’ve written the dialogue in English and inserted a footnote that said, “Translated from the Zentraedi,” but I never seriously considered doing that (for better or worse).

My first goal was to create a basic vocabulary and sentence structure for Zentraedi so that the lines in Zentraedi would look like a consistent language, and not just a string of random syllables. Is this the best way to build an alien language? I have no idea. I was pretty much flying by the seat of my pants.

The direction of the story influenced the creation of the language insofar as that I needed Zentraedi words for concepts that would be coming up regularly.


Return to Macross was a series that took place at a time after the SDF-1 crashed on Macross and before the Zentraedi arrived. (And who knows? Maybe the Japanese read your series and was inspired to create the Macross Zero anime that took place within the same time frame! Although, who can resist wanting to do more adventures with Roy Fokker?) How would you describe Return to Macross to Robotech fans who may consider hunting down the series in the back-issue boxes of comic stores and conventions? 

BILL: Well, you’ve covered a lot of it already (g). First Contact with extraterrestrial life is a classic science fiction theme, and what I wanted to do was play with the theme of First Contact, as well as fill in some of the gaps of ROBOTECH canon from that period. Yes, I was trying to make that Great Jumping-On Point For New Readers…

And I enjoyed writing Roy because he was so different than Max. He was a lady’s man, and not exactly a deep thinker.


The Invid War comic series is another favorite for a lot of readers. In the animated series, Scott Bernard was all too eager to take the fight to the Regis, one hive at a time if he had to. But with Invid War focusing on Major John Carpenter, we saw a different kind of freedom fighter, somebody who’s fighting to find freedom for himself and others by going to the moon. How important was it to show this side of the struggle in the Third Robotech War? Bernard and Carpenter clash over their differences in one of the issues.

BILL: That’s a good way of putting it. John Carpenter was fighting for his own liberation, as well as the liberation of Earth. I became very attached to John Carpenter and Bekka Cade, so in that sense they were important to me. I don’t want to put words in Tim Eldred’s mouth, but he did tell me once that he enjoyed the banter between Carpenter and Bekka. Now that I think about it, of the four different couples I worked with regularly in the comics, John and Bekka had the best relationship.



As time wore on, I discovered that I really wanted to give Carpenter and Bekka a happy ending, which is why they have something like a normal life in Robotech #0 [Academy Comics title recapping their line]. Here’s a bit of trivia you might like: I originally started with the idea that Carpenter was going to be the traveling judge, and Bekka was going to be the teacher, but then I realized I liked it better if I reversed it.

I know that The New Generation aka Invid Invasion is your favorite portion of the Robotech series. What in particular appeals to you about it? Was it the lack of annoying characters such as Minmei and Dana?

BILL: Don’t forget, Annie could get pretty annoying at times (g)…but, yeah, the characters in New Generation generally appealed to me more than the protagonists in the other sections. I liked how they were pointing out that this was Scott’s first time on Earth and how there were humans collaborating with the Invid. Those were the sort of things that weren’t often mentioned in live-action science fiction movies or TV, much less an animated series. It contained some of the elements of the first V weekly series, only done right.

And, you know, I think I like Yellow Dancer’s music more than Minmei’s.

What were some of the high points of collaborating with the various Robotech artists and laying out part of the chronology with fellow comics writer Robert W. Gibson? What was the process like?

BILL: Tim Eldred and I talked regularly on the phone while doing Invid War, and I think we got to know each other pretty well. Some artists I never spoke to directly, but that wasn’t a conscious decision on anyone’s part. It was just the way things worked out.

I think it was the editor at Academy Comics who suggested that Robert Gibson and I alternate scripting issues of Return to Macross. I didn’t know Robert before that. We hashed things out on the phone too, but he was a little more difficult to get in touch with because of his work schedule. At the time, Robert was working on one of the casino boats that sat in the Mississippi, and a lot of casino workers would work four ten-hour shifts, in order to get three days in a row off. So Robert spent a lot of time at work, or recovering from work. Basically, I’m mentioning this because this was the main reason why that gambling ship ended up off the shore of Macross Island…

You’ve known Jim Luceno for many years now and throughout your time as a Robotech writer. How helpful was it to correspond with him about Robotech lore? Did you two ever discuss what took place when in the timeline, and if so, what were some of those instances?

BILL: I don’t think we ever specifically talked about when a given event happened, but we definitely bounced ideas off each other. And those discussions were always informed by the idea that we wanted to keep things in the same continuity.

Here’s one bit of synergy that still tickles me: I introduced the character Terry Weston in the CyberPirates comic, but Jim got much more use out of him than I ever did, putting him in the cast of both The Masters’ Gambit and Before the Invid Storm.

There was a time when more consistency existed in the continuity between the animation, novels, and comics. Some examples: 1) Your comics in particular had respected what had been established in the original animated series as well as the novels; 2) Jack McKinney used much of what occurred in your Malcontent Uprisings comic for The Zentraedi Rebellion novel; 3) the Edwards character appeared in Comico’s Robotech: The Graphic Novel before appearing in the Robotech II: The Sentinels video (Carl Macek had a hand in the stories for both); and 4) Edwards was also a character who factored heavily in your Return to Macross comic. So what do you think of Harmony Gold’s changes to the saga in recent years?

BILL: Revamping continuity is a standard part of any ongoing franchise. It happens pretty regularly in comics, as both you and I know. And, while this isn’t exactly the same, separate ROBOTECH timelines predate the changes HG made. The Academy comic Clone was a separate timeline, and I think some of the Antarctic comics were too.

Well, you can probably guess what material I consider as part of the Robotech story. Speaking of which, what do you think of my continuity and timeline pages? And has their return stirred up any memories of me asking about Robominutiae?

BILL: That is your photo in the dictionary, next to “Labor of Love,” right? Seriously, you did a spectacular job researching all that information and presenting it in a clear and accessible form.

(Tangentially, something I don’t think ROBOTECH gets enough credit for is being a generational saga, one of the first generational sagas in visual sf. When it first came out, I think the only thing comparable was PLANET OF THE APES. It’s that scope, I think, that allows you and other researchers to take an in-depth look at the saga.)

People who have read your contributions to the overall epic still hold your material in high regard. Is there anything you would like to say to them?

BILL: I just want to thank everybody for their support. It’s very gratifying to know that people remember my work so fondly. Besides being a lot of fun, working in the ROBOTECH universe has done a lot for my career as a writer and introduced me to a number of people whom I still consider friends.

Artwork: Airship 27

Besides Robotech, what are other works by Bill Spangler should we be looking for, past, present, and future?

BILL: I wish I had something specific to promote, but I just don’t. Everything I’m working on right now is too vague to talk about. But thanks for asking…

Now for something we’ve discussed in recent times; I want to get your answer in print, so to speak. Did you coin the pejorative Zentraedi phrase hajoca after the name of a distributor of plumbing, heating, and industrial supplies with locations in Pennsylvania and many other places throughout the United States? It’s a question I had that germinated back when we first met.

BILL: That’s absolutely right. I thought it had the harsh sound that I needed, and, taken away from its original context, it sounded pretty exotic. You’re one of the few people who could’ve recognized its origin.

This may be Too Much Information, but the translation of “hajoca” changed, as I got more into the Zentraedi mind-set. At first, I figured it was vulgar, but I wasn’t going to offer a specific translation. I think Max says something like, it doesn’t really translate into English, but it’s not a compliment. As time wore on, though, I decided that the literal translation was something like “the weak point in our defense,” or maybe just “the weakest link.” So it’s not really vulgar, but it really is a serious insult as far as the Zentraedi are concerned. So Max’s remark is still accurate.

Oh, for the record: Tinari, the name of Rolf Emerson’s Zentraedi aide, also comes from a local business.

Finally. A mystery over 20 years old has been officially solved. And you Robotech fans thought the greatest mystery was what happened to the SDF-1’s fold system which disappeared in The Macross Saga. Nope. That was solved in much less time. The greatest mystery was the origins of hajoca as used in The Malcontent Uprisings comic, and only I knew there was a mystery to begin with!

What’s this about Tinari now?
RCT

You can find Bill on Facebook.

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